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India: C&A, H&M, Inditex, PVH and Gap pledge to improve garment workers' living conditions

In response to the report “Unfree and Unfair”, published by the human and labor rights organisation India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN) in January 2016, five international buyers - C&A, H&M, Inditex, PVH and Gap - responded extensively to the draft sent to them and pledged to improve the living conditions of garment workers at their suppliers' factories in Bangalore, India, a garment hub that leading multinational brands are sourcing from. Specifically, the report criticises the poor living conditions and restricted freedom of movement of young female migrant garment workers in Bangalore.

“Nothing is good. But we are staying here because we have to live and there is no other way,” said one female garment worker. Most are scared to provide more details about their lives at the garment factories or elaborate on the harassment they experience from supervisors and security personnel for fear of repercussions.

Yet, as a major hub for the garment industry in South India, especially young women keep flocking to Bangalore with its approximate 1,200 garment factories, of which roughly 300 are unregistered. Though about 80 percent of the migrant workers come from villages in Karnataka itself, the state of which Bangalore is the capital, about 10 percent come from neighboring states or from further away, thus making it harder on the migrant workers as they are not familiar with the local language and customs.

India: C&A, H&M, Inditex, PVH and Gap pledge to improve garment workers' living conditions

Female migrant garment workers suffer most from inadequate living conditions

For the report, data was collected by local researchers through a mix of desk research and interviews with 110 workers, employed at four garment factories, namely K Mohan & Co., Texport Industries, Arvind Ltd. Exports and Shahi Exports, producing a variety of readymade garments like shirts, pants and jeans. While Arvind produces garments for H&M, Shahi Exports is a long-term supplier for C&A. According to Texport (see image), their client list includes industry heavy weights like Kmart, Walmart, H&M, Gap, Sears and many others.

All surveyed suppliers are big garment producers that pride themselves on customer orientation, quality products and their CSR guidelines. Here is an expert from Texport's description on its website: “TIPL is one of the most well known and reputed business houses in the garment industry, in India as well as in the international markets. It is one of the first companies in India to start export operations. Known for its quality and commitment to social responsibility, it is a pioneer in valuing human relationships.” It gets better: “We hire the best in the industry and make no compromises when it comes to human resources.”

Sadly, the reality for those at the lowest level, namely the garment workers, seems to be very different. Among the major problems, the report cites cramped living conditions in factory hostels that charge migrant workers more than locals and don't offer basics like mattresses, beds and cupboards. About 12 to 15 garment workers share one bathroom and there may or may not be a kitchen, in which case workers have to pay for food too, which is basic and does not provide enough nutrition for enduring long factory hours. Hence, leading to workers' weakness and a drop in productivity.

India: C&A, H&M, Inditex, PVH and Gap pledge to improve garment workers' living conditions

The freedom of women workers is especially restricted: while male workers are allowed to stay out until 11 pm every day, female workers have to return to the hostel right after work and are allowed to leave the premises only for two hours a week, usually on Sundays, which are spent buying food and other essentials. They also have to register with a security guard each time they come and go and scoldings and worse by supervisors are rampant. Though wages in all four factories surveyed were slightly above the state minimum wage, they still do not equal a living wage.

At the beginning of November 2015, ICN shared the draft report with leading multinational brands sourcing from Bangalore, namely GAP, H&M, Tommy Hilfiger, Inditex and C&A. All of them responded and declared to take “serious action” (all responses have been annexed to the report, which is available online at indianet.nl).

Specifically, the companies pledged to review curfew regulations at the factory hostels and to engage with industry experts, brands and stakeholders to “implement a comprehensive industry-wide program to 'institutionalize' international standards for recruiting workers, accommodation, grievance management, training and development of migrant workers" according to ICN.

India: C&A, H&M, Inditex, PVH and Gap pledge to improve garment workers' living conditions

C&A, H&M and Inditex want to work together toward a “coordinated and collaborative approach to improve working conditions of the migrant garment workers” and liaise with the local trade unions GLU (Garment Labor Union) and GATWU (Garment and Textile Workers Union). With the help of the local NGO Gram Tarang, they also want to empower migrant workers with training and a grievance handling system, which is much called for.

In addition, C&A said it will look into conditions at Shahi Exports, while H&M said it would apply dormitory guidelines for all hostels in the H&M supply chain and reinforce the guidance for migrant workers. Inditex is also looking at its whole supply chain in India, aiming for better hostel facilities, a system to handle grievances and offering training and counselling sessions for migrant workers while sensitising staff toward their situation.

PVH requested a report from the supplier factories mentioned and said they were developing guidelines to address the issues raised, while Gap stated their efforts went beyond those at the individual vendor level: The brand said it was “working closely with ETI and other brands to contribute to an industry-wide multi-stakeholder forum comprising of industry, brands, local unions and other civil society organisations to effectively address the issue in Bengaluru and to find long-term sustainable solutions”.

The reaction by all leading international buyers shows that the days of looking away or pointing the finger at others are hopefully over. After all, employing happy and healthy workers should be in everyone's interest as studies have proven that productivity will rise while attrition decreases.

Images: Texport / Shahi Exports / K Mohan & Co.